“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” said philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The unfortunate truth is that there are many things in life that cannot be comprehended unless and until one has lived through them. Had my elders tried to impart upon me certain lessons they’d learned through painful experience, it is unlikely I would have heeded them. Youth gifts us with a sense of invincibility. Age imparts important lessons.
After living a half century, I appreciate that when a student is ready, the teacher will come. In retrospect, I see that I missed many obvious lessons along the way.
Lessons can come via unlikely messengers. If I open my consciousness, I see and learn much more. An opening of my mind occurred most significantly when I started practicing meditation regularly. Meditation is, in essence, being fully present to the moment. When you focus solely on your breath, your mind clears and you become centered. While giving full attention to your breathing, you cannot also worry about the future or fret about the past. If I’d had this tool earlier in my life, I would have freed myself from a great deal of needless anxiety.
Meditation need not be lengthy or time consuming to be beneficial. I often practice walking meditation. For instance, when I walk from my car to my office building, I walk slowly and deliberately, thinking of nothing but the feeling of my feet on the earth. In less than a minute or two, I feel calm and ready for whatever curveballs come my way.
Toxic people and triggering situations are not obligatory. Learning to set boundaries is a life skill we should all cultivate.
Unless I am feeling spiritually grounded, there are many things I try to avoid. Toxic people and triggering situations are not obligatory. Learning to set boundaries is a life skill we should all cultivate. Now I am much more intentional about how and with whom I spend my time. Often people are fairly careful about how they spend their money but less so about how they spend their time. Yet time is the only thing you cannot buy or get back — and it is of an unknown quantity. I wish I had been more aware of this earlier in my life.
I am recovering from a lifetime of people pleasing. I used to put other people’s needs before my own, even to my detriment and when it was not necessary to do so. Now when someone asks me to do something, I pause before responding. I ask myself whether I actually want to do the thing asked of me or if I am only feeling obligated because I was asked. I ask myself if it is something that will deplete me unnecessarily, rendering me too tired to devote myself to higher priorities. I am no longer afraid to say no.
Another important lesson that came to me later in life is that what other people think of me is not my business. It is not even within my control. We can never know the complete picture of what is going on in someone else’s life. A person’s reaction to something I say or do may be tied to childhood hurts or something else unrelated to me. No one person’s reality is identical to another’s. Adopting this attitude brought me more peace and compassion in almost every situation.
I learned to stop “shoulding” all over myself. I stopped second-guessing. I let go and trust more that all is as it should be.
I also have discovered compassion for myself. I spent far too much time berating myself for the things I should or should not have done in my past. But I learned to stop “shoulding” all over myself. I stopped second-guessing. I let go and trust more that all is as it should be.
Travel, too, became more of a priority for me as I aged. Observing different cultures and places is a cure for narrow-mindedness. We are blessed in our country with many things we take for granted. Travel in less-affluent nations increased my gratitude for all that I have and lessened my despair over things I don’t. It made me conscious of overconsumption and the interconnectedness of all people.
But the most important lesson I have learned — the thing I would most wish for my younger self to know — is that no one is responsible for my happiness but me. As a young woman, I constantly sought outside affirmation of my value instead of valuing myself and knowing that I am enough. I needed an uninterrupted stream of validation in order to not feel lonely. Today, I like myself, I surround myself with people who help me to be the best version of myself that I can be, and I know the difference between being alone and being lonely.
Maria Leonard Olsen is a civil litigation attorney, radio host, and author of 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life. Read more from her at marialeonardolsen.com.